With the Vancouver Whitecaps keeping busy this week, bringing in 2 players, while shuffling one out, we analyze the 3 moves for the club, as they ramp up their activity heading into the start of their MLS preseason.
Much like the snow that dogged the lower mainland recently, the moves seemed to come in a flurry of action in Vancouver late this week.
The start of preseason for the Vancouver Whitecaps is now but mere days away, and consequentially, the roster moves have started to come in fast and furious. While they have yet to confirm the arrival of Cristian Dajome, the Colombian winger who is reportedly joining the club, they officially confirmed another new signing on Thursday, as Canadian/Chilean left-back, Cristian Gutierrez, joined the club as a free agent from Colo-Colo in Chile.
Elsewhere, there were some other moves that started to come through this past week, as the Whitecaps also announced the departure of midfielder Jon Erice early on Wednesday, while reports emerged later that day that FC Edmonton centre back, Amer Didic, would be on his way to Vancouver to join the club on trial.
As the team gets ready to start pre-season training this upcoming week, it’s good to see some movement on the player front, especially with all of the suggestions that the CBA could be potentially holding things up. It does certainly appear to be that way, with teams such as the Seattle Sounders starting training camp this past week with only 2 signed centre backs, but at least Vancouver is showing that it isn’t holding them back too much in terms of roster preparation.
Heading into what was promised to be a revamped preseason, it’s good to see the pieces of the puzzle come together, as they look to avoid the slow start that plagued them last year. While a lot of their struggles were personnel-related, a big chunk of their problems came due to a disjointed training camp, which made the Caps unable to really ever find their highest gear out of the gates.
With the team promising to avoid starting similarily to last season, it’s good to see them at least trending towards having most of their key pieces in ahead of the start of training camp, while also shedding some of their excess players off of the roster. They’re far from being a complete team, no doubt, with the team promising some exciting midfield additions, but they’re already ahead of where they were at this time last year, which at least is a good thing.
Erice: The case of a whipping boy?
Vancouver got the ball rolling on their moves early on Wednesday, as it was confirmed that defensive midfielder, Jon Erice, would be returning to Albacete Balompie in Spain’s second division. It was a move that was not at all surprising, with the Spaniard falling out of head coach Marc Dos Santos’s starting 11 early in the summer, despite starting the year as an everyday player that was supposed to emblemize how the team wanted to play.
It was also a move that was universally applauded, as many were ready to move on from Erice, with his outgoing transfer being particularly well-received amongst fans. While it was probably best that he move on, with his high salary, age and fit in the side not really fitting into what Vancouver is currently building, many seemed to link the failures of 2019 to Erice, which isn’t necessarily fair to pin on the Spaniard.
In a sense, it’s not surprising, because as we explored back in early August, he had shifted into a role as the team’s ‘whipping boy’, with the outgoing Lucas Venuto and Felipe opening up space for new players to take the mantle as football’s goat (not to be confused with G.O.A.T). With his $750 000 salary the second-highest on the team, along with his unique style of play and advancing age, he quickly became a target, amplified by the Whitecaps struggles to generate offence through the midfield.
There’s no doubt that Erice was certainly part of the problem, but he was far from being the crux of it, as he did what he could. To give him credit, he was always professional, training hard, and maintained that right into his departure, thanking the club for the year, even despite only featuring twice over the last 3 months.
But while he was far from the problem, he almost became emblematic of the Caps 2019 struggles, which meant that his days were always going to be numbered when the season finished. On a team that needed foundation, he was a finishing piece, one meant to push them over the top, when in reality they just needed to float above the water.
A peek at his stats give an idea of what that means. He averaged a solid 86% passing average on around 55 passes a game, while also adding 2 tackles and 1.4 interceptions defensively, as he fulfilled the role of a regista to a tee.
While defensively he did struggle at times, as he didn’t have the pace nor the athleticism to always be able to cope with some of the feverish counterattacks opponents sent forward, but considering that he was operating as a lone defensive midfielder, he did decently. Had he been part of a double pivot, with a partner to help him cope, he could have fared better, but with Vancouver struggling to get the ball forward, they couldn’t afford to drop one of their #8s down.
As the lone #6, he also got pushed back quite often when in possession, nullifying his ability to make a killer ball. One of his best traits in training was finding a half-yard of space and unleashing balls that would pierce 1 or 2 lines of defence, but in games, that space was never there, forcing Erice to keep things short, also playing into Vancouver’s midfield struggles.
Had the team been set up to play more to his strengths, Erice wouldn’t have been so bad, but it wasn’t, so it’s why he’s symbolic of the 2019 Whitecaps season. Kudos to Marc Dos Santos and Axel Schuster for cutting their losses and moving on, and while it was a costly decision to make, if it helps them avoid a similar mistake in this window, as they aim to target profiles of players that will can their system, then it will be looked back upon fondly.
Didic: The next CPL export?
The next bit of news to come out on Wednesday, FTF Canada announced on Twitter that FC Edmonton standout centre back, Amer Didic, was indeed trialling with the Whitecaps this spring, after news came out earlier in the week that he had been linked to Vancouver. In the midst of an impressive ‘Camp Poutine’ with Canada’s Men’s National Team, it was a good bit of news for Vancouver, who may just end up scoring another quality defender to add to their backline on a good deal.
In a week where Cavalry FC centre back, Joel Waterman, moved to the Montreal Impact in a historic move for the Canadian Premier League, it’s good to see the Whitecaps looking at Didic. He’s familiar with Dos Santos, with Didic having gone through the Sporting Kansas City system at the same time that the manager was helming their USL affiliate, Swope Park, and is coming off a strong CPL season, where he was a shining light on Edmonton.
While Edmonton was unable to do much on the pitch results-wise, Didic earned several call-ups to the Canadian National Team, becoming the first CPL outfield player to earn that distinction. At only 25, he quickly became an example of what the first-year league could do for some players, so in a sense, it’s no surprise to see him be one of the first players to push towards potentially moving up.
And for the Whitecaps, there does appear to be a fit. His frame is an obvious asset, because as the saying goes, you can’t teach 6’5”, but he’s a complete defender. Despite his height, he is an excellent ball-playing centre back, pinging diagonals all over the field like an experienced midfielder, which fits into what the Whitecaps are aiming to do more of next year.
It’s not sure yet what his future will hold at Vancouver, as he is only coming in on a trial, but this move does seem promising on the surface. He’s probably been arguably Canada’s best player during this January camp, he’s coming off a good season, and he’s still at an age for a centre back where there is still lots of growth yet to come.
With Dos Santos often shifting between 2 and 3 centre back formations last year, bringing in a 4th quality central defender to complement an already solid trio of Derek Cornelius, Jhesser Khemiri and Erik Godoy won’t hurt, especially with Cornelius likely to miss a few games with international duty.
All-in-all, there’s a lot of upside to this move, so it’s good to see Vancouver try it out, pretty much risk-free, especially considering that Didic is currently a free agent, making a potential transfer quite cheap (or free).
Gutierrez: Preparing for life after Ali?
Speaking of free agents, the Whitecaps made a splash on one this week, signing Canadian/Chilean left back, Cristian Gutirrez, from Chile. While it wasn’t the free-agent signing people are expecting to be announced, with another Cristian, Cristian Dajome, expected to soon sign on a free transfer in Vancouver, it was a welcome surprise, as the Caps are taking a punt on an intriguing 22-year-old prospect.
He’s been someone that’s been on the radar of many for a while now, as he eligible to make a one-time switch in order to play with Canada, having already played in Chile’s youth setup. With Canada having a dearth of defenders, at least relative to their wealth of quality, young attackers, people have been keeping a close eye on some dual-nationals, with Gutierrez being amongst those looked at.
Sportsnet soccer writer and South American football expert, Peter Galindo, identified Gutierrez as one to watch back in September, describing him as ‘responsible defensively”, someone with good ‘positional awareness’ and someone who could bring a good ‘attacking spark’. While he was scouting him for a potential call-up to Canada, either for the first team, or the U23 Olympic qualifying tournament this spring, what he said is interesting to look at for the Whitecaps, at least in the wake of this signing.
He’s unlikely to slot in as a starter right away, especially not with Ali Adnan, who the Whitecaps splashed a then-record fee on a full back to secure his services in the summer, but he’s certainly a long-term option for the team to look at. With rumours constantly swirling around Adnan’s future, as we explored this week, the Whitecaps are set up for the Iraqi to depart in either 2020 or 2021, and this latest signing reinforces that notion.
By picking up a young, defensively solid but attacking full back, Vancouver have already sorted out their Adnan replacement, without having to break the bank. He can be an understudy to Adnan, who can certainly give some good mentorship to the young full back, before seizing the role in a year or two, with his contract keeping him in Vancouver until 2021, along with options that stretch out until 2023.
And from a Canadian point of view, having him back in the country certainly seems to boost his chance of playing for the National Team, which is another plus. By doing that, Vancouver is saving its international spots and quickly establishing themselves as a Canadian team, which after their early MLS years, has been a nice change to see.
While they may stand to get absolutely ravaged during an international window, it’d be good to see that they have that many players representing their countries, anyways, so to see these kinds of moves are positive. Even without the question of nationality, he’s a good, young defender brought in on a free, with the rest being the cherry on the metaphorical cake.
The Whitecaps get things underway this weekend, with players starting to stream in for fitness testing, before the outdoor sessions start early next week. More players should be brought in before then, with the team being far from complete, but these latest moves are a good step in the right direction.
There is still lots more to be done before this is graded as a complete offseason, with the midfield openings looming large, but elsewhere, the signings of Cavallini and Gutierrez, along with the trial of Didic and impending arrival of Dajome, look good. If they can just nail the midfield signings, and things will be looking up heading into 2020, especially with this revamped preseason promising change.
So while we won’t be able to judge the full spectre of the 2020 offseason until those moves are made, this last week has been solid. It was never going to be a sprint, especially with all the off-the-field reshuffling, so it’s been positive to at least see some signs of life on the player front.
Now, it’s time for the guys that are here to start putting in work, starting with camp this week, while the off the pitch staff ensures that the rest of the signings are brought in, hopefully sooner rather than later. That will come down to many factors, such as negotiations, a willingness to come and more, but you’d expect that to be sorted out before too long.
After a rollercoaster 2019 season, things are slowly trending up, which is all anyone can realistically ask for. How high will they trend? We’ll find out later, but that it’s pushing up is a good start.